Taranaki Development snatch shield from Steelform Whanganui

By Jared Smith (Photos credit: Michael Gill, Kiwi TV)

The Jones Brothers Shield headed back up State Highway 3 on Saturday as two tries in the last five minutes saw Taranaki Development XV regain the prize from Steelform Whanganui, 38-33.

What adds to the disappointment of a preseason game where Whanganui were comfortably on top but then ran out of legs at the finish, was one of their former team mates had a big part in their demise.

Whanganui’s 2018 winger Harry Symes, who jumped on with Waverley Harvesting Border for a couple of games earlier this season before his regular Taranaki club called him back, scored the visitors opening try, and then with 90 seconds left, dashed right from the corner of his 22m through despairing dive tackles to bring his team back into the red zone, with fullback Jackson Sinclair stepping to score under the posts moments later.

Older brother and fellow former Whanganui representative Tom Symes, who did the full season for Border, also came off the Development bench.

Unfortunately for Whanganui, who were camping in Taranaki’s half with a 33-24 lead with five minutes remaining, the continuous high pace of the game against an NPC feeder team took a toll after their strong start.

Returning players like midfielder Timoci Seruwalu (leg cramp) and lock Josh Lane (ribs) had to come off after lifting Whanganui with their experience, while centre Josiah Bogileka, covering for an unwell Kameli Kuruyabaki, was slightly hobbled by a sprig down the leg.

This left gaps in the line, as reserve prop Jordan McFarlane stunned everyone by snatching an intercept on his own 30m and outrunning the cover to give his team a hope at 33-31, and then despite Whanganui securing possession and clearing down into Taranaki’s pocket, Harry Symes and Sinclair still had reserve fuel tanks.

Other standouts for Taranaki were double try-scoring skipper Cole Blyde at No8, along with openside flanker Connor White.

For Whanganui, Peter-Travis Hay-Horton made a welcome return to lock as he and Lane introduced some grit back into the pack, while flanker Jamie Hughes stepped up after receiving the captaincy, and without Roman Tutauha (ear infection) hooker Jack Yarrall had an excellent opening quarter, setting up the first two tries.

It was the return of the prodigal son as 2021 debutant Ezra Malo, son of Whanganui legend Ace, was back home after a season of Hawke’s Bay club rugby and looked sharp with a try and two conversions.

But Malo’s vigour only threw further light on the fact the rest of the squad have not had a club season of equal length and intensity to condition themselves for a higher level.

When the above players were subbed or helped off hurt, their replacements were unable to hold Taranaki back, after the visitors had not played especially well either, with a lot of handling errors over the first three quarters.

“We’re putting the work in, it’s just the accumulation of work that we’re not used to,” said coach Jason Hamlin.

“When we got down there in the first half, we were scoring points, but we didn’t get there enough.

“We actually manufactured some really nice tries. But the thing, unfortunately, and I’ve been telling them this for the last month, was our fitness levels aren’t there.

“Our club rugby hasn’t prepared us for what these teams are bringing us, and that sort of came to bear.

“You know it, and accept it, and we’re asking people to come on in the last 10 minutes and add something to the game, and today we didn’t hit the mark on it.”

Leading 33-12, Whanganui stayed in trial mode by making changes and continuing to move the ball, or make barge carries off the ruck – rather than looking for territory and kickable points – whereas Taranaki went into shield mode by keeping players who had done well on the pitch, such as Symes switching from winger to fullback.

“The last two games of the preseason, we’ll start taking points when they’re on offer, so it gets us in that mindset for the start of Heartland, so we can build our fives and sevens to tens [points],” said Hamlin.

“That might have bought us a bit of time if we’d taken a kick early, might have put us out [of reach].

“We were creating things – should we have been a bit more aware of people coming into the line?

“Probably, but you’re asking them to play footy – we were defending on the line for 15 phases before they scored their first try.”

It was a shame to finish on a downer on what had otherwise been a good training camp for the squad, coming together on Friday morning.

“Got quite a big list of things to tick off, don’t know if we ticked them all off but we got a long way there.

“Had some people come in around team building, some non-rugby stuff, so that was a bit of fun, got the boys engaged in it.”

Whanganui made the perfect start as loose forwards Semi Vodosese and Ben Whale made strong hitups, followed by prop Gabriel Hakaraia, and then Yarrall made a dart off the ruck to put Hughes under the posts, with first-five Brook Tremayne landing his first Whanganui conversion.

Taranaki struggled to clear, putting kicks out on the full, and after an attacking lineout, Yarrall again slipped through off the ruck and halfback Kahl Elers-Green was with him to dive over.

Malo being forced to take a good attacking chip kick into touch opened up the visitors for an opportunity, as they went to each sideline before Symes dashed free to score in the corner, with first-five Rocky Olsen slotting a good conversion.

However, trying to set quickly for a lineout in their own 22m proved costly when an overthrow landed for Hakaraia, who juggled the unexpected gift but maintained control to dive over.

Taranaki responded with a fine team try from inside their own half as halfback Shaan White and centre Adam Smith made some great offloads to set Blyde dashing off to score in the corner for 19-12.

However, Whanganui responded with some great offloads of their own, hitting it back up towards the tryline, where slippery winger Tiari Mumby ducked under the ruck defenders to score on halftime.

A Malo dash with support from reserve first-five Dane Whale brought Whanganui onto attack, where Yarrall managed to step through Symes, and after Seruwalu, winger Alekesio Vakarorogo and Hay-Horton had a crack at breaking through, Malo stepped off both feet to wrong foot the last defenders and score.

At 33-12, Whanganui appeared settled, but conceding two penalties after the restart left them under pressure, and following a quick tap, Blyde shrugged through a tackle to score out wide.

Taranaki were still making a lot of handling errors, but Whanganui could not capitalise, and conceding a shepherding penalty let the visitors carried strongly into the attacking half, with Tom Symes having a couple of good runs, and the gap opened for White to dive through and score a try he converted.

As the game stayed scrappy and with the clock winding down, Whanganui still didn’t seem in any trouble, until McFarlane made his stunning dash, converted by Sinclair, and then Harry Symes made his incursion to set up Sinclair snatching the shield.

Taranaki Development 38 (C Blyde 2, H Symes,  C White,  J McFarlane,  J Sinclair tries; Sinclair 2 con, R Olsen con, White con) bt Steelform Whanganui 33 (J Hughes, K Elers-Green, G Hakaraia, T Mumby, E Malo tries; B Tremayne 2 con, Malo 2 con). HT: 26-12 Whanganui.